Meet Warhol's Evil Twin: "Pop Goes the Joker"
The Joker begins by assassinating his art-historic predecessors. Victim #1 is an American Scene painter (a version of American Gothic is visible among his works). The Joker shows up at the American Scener’s show and defaces his masterpieces with paint guns. (This prefigures a better-known bit in the Tim Burton Batman.) But the American Scene guy is delighted; he could never get that modern stuff right and now can sell his works as drip paintings. Ergo, Batman can’t arrest the Joker: “We have no choice, Robin. He’s committed no crime; in fact he’s increased the value of these paintings.”
“Modern art tends to be rather unrestrained,” Bruce Wayne/Batman tells sidekick Robin.
“Unrestrained? Governor Stonefeller should declare this place a disaster area!”
The Joker tops them all by showing a blank canvas. His title (“Death of a Mauve Bat”) echos those of the Incoherents, the proto-dadaists who created monochrome abstractions—as jokes— and threw them away 36 years before Malevich. “Baby Jane” Towser (played by Diana Ivarson) adores the Joker’s blank canvas and applauds him as a genius.
“How can they clap for that crook?” Robin asks.
“Don’t forget, this is a hometown crowd, and the Joker’s from Gotham City” — a rather knowing comment on art world geography from the 1967 L.A. perspective.
From there the plot turns to kidnapping, assassination of Robin on a murderous mobile, and theft of the Renaissance collection of the Gotham City Art Museum. “Baby Jane” is repeatedly mystified to learn that the Joker’s pomo conceptualism is just a scam to amass Old Masters. How many Balloon Dogs did Jeff Koons have to sell to buy his Cornelis van Haarlem Hercules and Achelous?
The Joker is in short the American archetype of artist as trickster-con-man-freak. He is enabled by conniving dealers (the one here switches price tags on a painting while the “mark” gazes at it) and wealthy dim-bulb collectors. The Joker’s rhetoric draws on the anarchic phase of modernism, from futurism to fluxus, and the perpetual manifesto plank that art and museums must be destroyed to make way for whatever it is that comes next. To make art, the Joker destroys art, then destroys his own creations, which he knows to be worthless. He is scrupulous about nothing beyond market value and the signing of his works. In fact, the Romero Joker resembles Salvador Dalí more than Warhol, and Dalí was pretty good at signing things. The Joker fools everyone—except, implicitly, the common folk who know nothing of art. (Shown, Ben Vautier’s Total Art March-Box, created the year before the Batman episodes.)
BABY JANE: “Joker, how could you!”
JOKER: “We artists should not be judged by ordinary standards. We’re a very special breed.”